What can The Apprentice teach us about management?

CAR-CRASH or can’t miss TV, whichever your point of view, The Apprentice is influencing our opinion of the skills, character and behaviour needed to be a success in business.

The poorly performed tasks, bickering, back-stabbing, blame-laying and boardroom histrionics that are the hallmark of this show must make accountants wonder what relevance it can possibly have to a tax or audit manager leading a small team in an accountancy firm, or a manager in the finance function of a plc?

Each week the would-be Apprentices divide into two teams and select a ‘leader’ to manage the project. Although accountancy teams are rarely asked to run a bakery; produce an advert or sell crisps to German hoteliers (unless they work in the insolvency practice), the way the leader runs the team is instructive.

The main difficulty for the leader is getting the other contestants to follow, because they all want to shine individually. This often leads to micro-management or aggressive behaviour because the leader doesn’t trust the team to do as asked and the team doesn’t trust the leader to take them in the right direction (and therefore risk failing the task).

Gaining two-way trust is the binding ingredient to managing a team. In the accountancy world professional trust, at least, is assumed both by colleagues and clients. Building personal trust requires a combination of authentic behaviour ie. acting in a natural and consistent way rather than assuming a role, and good communication.

The show over the weeks has given us plenty of examples of boastful, over-confident individuals who ‘step-up’ to the role of team manager with a ‘put-on’ personality which is overly aggressive and authoritative. It’s no surprise that these individuals have been amongst the first to get fired (although one or two still remain).

Communication for a team manager is not just telling people what to do. To engage with the team; pitch for new business; or negotiate with the tax authorities for example, a softer two-way approach is needed. Listening is key, especially when dealing with difficult personalities or with confrontation.

If a team member disagrees with a course of action or becomes angry, rather than shout them down or roll your eyes and ignore them – as happens frequently on the programme – the thing to do is to listen. Look them in the eye and make a genuine effort to understand their point of view. Probe and ask questions. Objectively assess the issue. Does their argument have merit? Treat the person and their opinion with respect, even if it doesn’t result in a change of mind.

The final element in the trust puzzle is developing emotional trust in the team. Answering the team’s question: “What’s in it for me?”. On the programme the answer is simple: smooth passage to the next stage of the competition. In real life this is more complicated, but the personal integrity of the team manager plays a part in gaining emotional commitment from the team.

At the time of writing, a young man who was team leader got sacked because in the boardroom, he refused to blame his colleague for a mistake that resulted in failing the task. The conclusion here might be that you don’t get on by being nice in business. If nice means weak, that’s absolutely true but I don’t agree that nice people can’t get on in business. Being firm, consistent and possessing good judgment are the important qualities and these needn’t go hand in hand with a bullying or unpleasant manner. In the short term, you might get the backing of your team by being nice but over time, making the right decisions will ensure the strongest loyalty. In this case, the guy had his team’s backing but we’ll never know whether he had the judgment to make sound decisions downstream and how the support of his team would have held up if not.

Jack Downton is the managing director of The Influence Business


Related reading